Booth Plans Ahead

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | February 22, 2015

February 22, 2015
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John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth, assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.

Late in the summer of 1864 the actor John Wilkes Booth, at the height of his fame, stopped working. He began, instead, his career as a kidnapper.  A Southern sympathizer, maybe even a spy, he decided to snatch Lincoln, spirit him to Richmond, and exchange him for Confederate POWs. But nothing went right. Schemes to seize the President – as he rode alone  to his summer cottage; as he returned from a military hospital in his carriage; even, somehow, as he sat in a crowded theater – all fell through. Booth, however, persevered, and traveled, recruited, conspired and concocted for months, right up until the night of April 14, 1865. This letter, written just nine weeks before the assassination, is evidence of –  something.  Booth, in Philadelphia, but datelining his letter Washington D.C.,  asks a friend in Boston, to send to New York, “without a moment’s delay”, a dozen of Booth’s favorite photos of himself.  He gave no reason. Then he added, casually, one more thing – the single detail which, ultimately, would turn him from a kidnapper into an assassin. Send his mail, he said, to Ford’s Theatre; it’s where he picked it up.

Whether, when Booth wrote this long and intriguing letter, he was planning to abduct President Lincoln or to kill him, is impossible to determine, though most evidence suggests capture rather than murder was then his aim; but that he was actively plotting, is indisputable. Writing to a long-time friend, Boston theater manager Orlando Tompkins, he makes an urgent request:

“Would you be kind enough to ask Case to send me without a moments delay one dozenof my card photghs. The ones I want are those seated, with cane & black cravat. He knows the ones I liked the best. Tell him to send them at once to New York No 28 East 19th St. as I hope to be there day after tomorrow, only, to stay a day or two. This is very important as there are several parties whom I would like to give one. So please attend to it upon the receipt of this…”

It is thought that Booth wanted the photos for identification purposes connected to the Lincoln conspiracy – and ironically, some two months later, his favorite, “seated, with cane & black cravat”, would adorn the Wanted Poster for the assassination of the President.

In a portent postscript, Booth has added

“I return to this city in about a week, stop at National Hotel, and will get any letter sent to Fords Theatre.”

Reward posted for conspirators in the Lincoln assassination
Broadside advertising reward for capture of Lincoln assassination conspirators, illustrated with photographic prints of John H. Surratt, John Wilkes Booth, and David E. Herold. Library of Congress.

It was while retrieving his mail at the theater on the morning of April 14, 1865, of course, that Booth first heard that Lincoln would be attending Our American Cousin that evening…

JOHN WILKES BOOTH. 1838 – 1865. The assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Previous to his brief career as a Lincoln conspirator, he was a famous American actor.

ORLANDO TOMPKINS. 1818 – 1884. Druggist, and one of the proprietors of the Boston Theatre, whose manager he was from 1862 until 1878. He was a friend of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. In 1865 John Wilkes Booth gave Tompkins a ring inscribed “JWB to OT, April 6, 1865.”

Autograph Letter Signed (three times; as “J. Wilkes Booth”, “John” and “Yours”), 3 pages, recto and verso, octavo, Washington, February 9, no year [1865]. To Orlando Tompkins of Boston. Very rare in and of itself,  it is also estimated that there are only seventeen Booth letters in private hands.

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